How COVID-19 Has Changed Flight Costs

Change Fees Are Disappearing but Other Costs Have Emerged

How COVID has changed flight costs

COVID-19 decimated the travel industry. At different points in March 2020, airline passenger traffic dropped by more than 90% compared to the previous year, and while numbers have improved—they’re still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. 

From waived cancellation fees to all-time low fares, airlines have scrambled to recover from the financial losses incurred in 2020. Not all changes have been positive, however. Although you may be able to change your flight at will, possible fare increases, COVID-test requirements, and even quarantine mean that your vacation or business trip may face challenges you haven’t dealt with before.As part of "Our Money's on Travel," a series about navigating the current world of travel, this story will tell you what to expect when it comes to the cost of flying.

Key Takeaways

  • Many airlines have suspended change and cancellation fees. 
  • Delta and JetBlue streamlined their baggage-fee structure.
  • Fares dropped during 2020, with Kennedy Airport seeing a 28% average decrease per domestic flight.
  • Industry experts predict fares could rise drastically amid reduced-seat availability.
  • Some countries require travelers to pay out of pocket for mandatory COVID tests before entering.

No Airline Fees for Changes or Cancellations

When the pandemic came barreling in at full force, most major airlines temporarily waived change or cancellation fees. This was true of major and budget U.S. airlines, including:

  • United
  • Delta
  • American
  • Alaska
  • JetBlue 
  • Spirit 
  • Frontier 

Southwest has never charged change or cancellation fees, so its policies remained the same.

United, American, Delta, and JetBlue eliminated these fees for most fare classes but reinstated them for basic economy fares on March 31, 2021. Alaska ended change and cancellation fees permanently for all seat classes. Frontier and Spirit ended change-fee waivers for all fares on March 31 and April 4, 2021, respectively.

Change- and cancellation-fee waivers were big news, as those fees can be as high as $200 (depending on the airline) ,plus additional costs if you book a new ticket that's more expensive than your old ticket.

Airline Baggage Fees

While COVID didn’t shake up the cost for baggage fees the way it did for change and cancellation fees, airlines tried to make their baggage policies easier to understand. American Airlines streamlined some of its baggage fees to help simplify pricing for customers. JetBlue changed its basic economy carry-on entitlement to reflect that of United’s: Passengers are allowed one personal item but no carry-on luggage. Southwest, ever the outlier, still allows all passengers to check two bags for free. 

Many airlines offer credit cards that will give you a free checked bag, regardless of which fare you’ve booked—even basic economy—when you book using the card. These airlines include Alaska, United, Delta, JetBlue, and American.

Lower Fares

The overall cost for flights dropped dramatically throughout 2020. Los Angeles International Airport, for example, saw a 24% fare drop (nearly $80) on its average domestic flight between the first and third quarters of 2020, from $328 down to $249. New York’s Kennedy International Airport saw a 28% drop, from $388 to $281.

While this has been a boon for those who have flown during the pandemic, travel experts don’t expect these low fares to remain. When the pandemic first started, airlines were doing everything they could to drum up travel, according to aviation analyst and Skift Editor Brian Sumers. This was especially true as cases rose throughout the country. Sumers said passengers used to be able to spot the hot spots according to ticket prices.

As airlines have reduced their schedules, however, fewer seats are available for purchase. Industry trends indicate that airline traffic numbers are growing, and as more Americans get vaccinated, those numbers are expected to increase. Airlines are regaining pricing power, and those insanely cheap deals of a few months ago are no more. 

COVID Testing Costs

Although a lack of change fees and lower airfares may have enticed some travelers to take to the skies, there are new costs associated with traveling during the pandemic. 

Many other countries require a negative COVID test before entry, with a requirement for how recent those tests must be. Some airlines and airports have launched initiatives to meet these requirements, but tests cost as much as $200 with airlines and $261 at airports.

The United States requires all airline passengers coming to the U.S. from a foreign country to present proof of a negative COVID test conducted within 72 hours of departure for anyone 2 years of age or older, or proof of recovery from COVID-19. 

And although some resorts have attempted to entice travelers with free COVID-19 testing, other countries have introduced stricter entry requirements than the U.S. In Canada, for example, all travelers must complete a three-day hotel quarantine at their own cost, then do another 11-day quarantine at their destination.